In all our sanctuaries we sit at risk

Poems in Public


Poetry once belonged only in open space – the mead hall by a great fire, where flea-bitten warriors sat at table with their lord ; or a place of worship or ceremony, the wedding, the funeral. Not in private, on paper, let alone on screen. Poetry belonged in the air between people, out loud.

Accordingly, the poet had a recognised place and status in the community as witness, custodian and celebrant of that community’s particular life and history. And the poet’s words were public words. They hung in the air. They were hung on to.

For poet and community were at one in their belief that true witness requires a language that activates both sides of the brain, not just the side that measures, tots up and chases material profit.

But then the invention of printing came along and played a large part in curtailing the public delivery of poetic language, delivering it instead to the private page and eventually to the side-lines, even while many of us find more and more that our experience of reality is left incomplete if all our talk is of quantity without quality, sell and spin without I – Thou.

The project “Poems for…the wall”

For the last twenty years, I have run the project “Poems for…the wall.” It is a way of restoring poetry to public space.

Its latest two collections attempt to bring to life and reality what it means to have either a mental health problem or a learning disability. The poems are not sentimental, nor do they under-estimate the issues. They don’t reduce the subject to slogans or figures or a list of research findings or otherwise trivialise or neutralise it. They do what poetry can do, offering human connection and comprehension.

I am hoping the collections will be used in schools and universities to address issues of stigma and isolation, and to make both topics addressed easier to talk about openly and with closer knowledge.

But while I am excited by what these latest collections might be able to do, I am equally sure that the Project’s earlier bilingual collections have a scope and application not yet fully realized or exploited, even now.

Intolerance and various forms of demonisation of the stranger and outsider are returning and increasing all over the world, to a horrendous and murderous degree, even while the same world has become irrecoverably and necessarily more and more inter-dependent and inter-connected.

In consequence, extraordinary contradictions abound. For example, we have unworthy politicians in many countries (including the UK, of course) winning votes for their regressive, even medieval notions of chauvinism and separatism, making more and more streets unsafe again, while at the same time young people from every continent in the world are coming together in school after school, university after university, country after country. Borders become walls and battlements even while universities inland become international centres, concentrations of global interchange, a bit like space stations shining in the growing dark.

In all this bewilderment, poems that build bridges surely have a part to play, perhaps as never before.

So much of our public language merely alienates people, even while they briefly and partly listen and read. In contrast, I believe public poetry of good enough quality can work the other way and help to oppose the forces of fragmentation and severance and withdrawal. The bilingual poems available on the site of “Poems for…the wall” can “open people’s lives to one another” – (David Hart, poet).

Graphically and often beautifully, the bilingual poems celebrate our enormous differences – of language, of text, even of reading direction  – and at the same time reveal and demonstrate, often with great penetration, our commonality. They offer an electric connection across space.

And people from a different background, whose mother tongue is not English, people perhaps struggling to integrate in the host country and institution, dealing with this incomprehensible delay, that clumsy requirement, can feel very different if they see their own language being celebrated on the wall here. Their presence is being acknowledged, even as their language and culture is being valued.

And for employees, poems displayed out in the open can give the eye something to rest on – between or even during phone calls, messages, classes. They can speak to a part of the Self kept otherwise submerged in the day’s rush and demands and anxieties. Suddenly, words in front of you can open up a whole different space of quietness and outlook and inlook.

Where in Public Space might Poems Belong ?

You can display the poems in imaginative ways. In most cases, it helps to keep changing them, so that people keep looking in their direction.

They can speak eloquently in a wide range of places : in reception areas or class rooms or waiting rooms, writ large ; or in quiet corners on a small scale – outside lifts, on desks, above the photostat machine, on toilet doors, in X-ray cubicles….

And people have found many different ways to display them : in A4 perspex stand-alone frames ; in perspex holders fixed to the wall ; in ordinary picture frames, designed to make it easy for poems to be replaced ; in ring-binder files, left on tables ; on plasma display screens as a rotating slideshow.

An enthusiast is needed on site to place the poems sensitively and keep rotating them, etc etc. Someone just doing it as a requirement from on high won’t give to the task the necessary flair or conscientiousness.

Poetry readings for university staff and students and others.

Here I am still talking about “public” poetry, but not in terms of the “Poems for…the wall” project and its poster-poems. This is about me as an individual poet and a retired mental-health social worker.

I think a lot about “fraught frontiers” and want to read my own poetry to people who are “stationed” there.

What do I mean by “fraught frontiers ?” I mean positions and roles and activities where it’s often hard to make I – Thou connection and keep integrity, where staying whole and reaching out can be taxing and problematic, and retreating into one or another simplistic black-and white position an almost overwhelming temptation.

If TS Eliot is right that “humankind cannot bear very much reality” (and it is all too clear that he is) then a fraught frontier is a place where reality presses very close and perhaps uncomfortable and identity is threatened. Consequently, brute behaviour can raise its head there.

The historian Hugh Trevor Roper established that in times and countries in which witchcraft was accepted as a possible explanation for misfortune, an uncertain frontier (in a geographical sense) was a dangerous place for a woman to keep house, especially if she was unusual in any way.

A community under pressure might turn on her at any time, suspecting her of being the cause of their trouble and uncertainty. She would be accused of witchcraft, bringing harm to the community through casting evil spells on its people. A whole pseudo-legal process would then be set in motion, in which she might be tortured and burnt to death as a kind of exorcism. Did conditions in the community now take a turn for the better ? No, of course not. But for centuries, a belief in witchcraft persisted.

In other words, fraught frontiers (both geographical  and psychological) can be places of fear and anxiety, delusion and scapegoating. In times and places of uncertainty, the outsider can become fair game. In times and places of uncertainty, it is that much harder to lead a full, rich, unguarded and generous life.

I think that the wonderful late David Jenkins, ex-Bishop of Durham, would have known very well what I mean and he put it better than I can in a speech he gave to social workers in 1988. Not exactly, but very nearly, his “pressure points” correspond to my “fraught frontiers.” Here he is : “[You] are a group of people who are being called upon to live dangerously at many of the pressure points in our present confused, confusing and increasingly divided society. As such you are the objects of, and therefore presumably in your own persons and reflections the subjects of, a great deal of confusion, anxiety and uncertainty. Your position is highly ambivalent and ambiguous and therefore both actually painful now and potentially promising with regard to the future of our society and, indeed, of human beings on this earth.”

In various ways and settings, it can be said that poetry has been making a “come-back” in recent years. Performance poets have become quite common, for example, often borrowing from rap styles. “Open Mike” events are well attended.

In other ways, though, poetry remains as much a minority activity as ever, a private individual interest, a purely literary activity for a few literary types, something that a few people study at university before getting down to living. And for most people, that “living” barely includes poetry at all – except perhaps when there’s a funeral…

Personally, I think poetry can open up parts of the self that modern life tends to lock out and deny ; and it can and should reach out to everyone, and not just to literary types. Above all, I think it can remind people of their own imaginative selves, their inwardness, and it can help sustain people whose work requires them to be imaginative and open, and in accord with the spiritual aspect of their lives.

So for me, a poetry reading is not a discrete literary event for literary types. It is a reaching out to people at the work-face, in the thick of things, at the fraught frontier. It offers quietness, “mindfulness,” insight and connection. It can open doors into rooms of people’s experience which they have forgotten existed. It can illuminate and validate and touch. It can re-order, refresh and re-orientate. It can remind people of what is true and whole.